Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 18, 2019

From First To Worst, In Lightning Time

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert…near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings;
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

“Ozymandias,” Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous sonnet, was published in 1818. Two centuries later, it remains the sublime cautionary tale, a timeless reminder in rather loose iambic pentameter of the impermanence of human accomplishment and the dangers of hubris.

Perhaps Shelley is not required reading in the school districts of Tampa, Florida. Perhaps the Romantic era, or even philosophical poetry itself, is out of fashion in the internet age. But one couldn’t help but recall Shelley’s warning Tuesday, when the NHL’s regular season titleholders, the Presidents’ Trophy winners Tampa Bay Lightning, exited the playoffs as swiftly as possible, in four straight first-round losses to the number eight seed Columbus Blue Jackets.

To grasp the scope of the Lightning’s precipitous fall one must appreciate the franchise’s regular season accomplishments. A year ago the team and its fans believed the Lightning were good enough to win the Stanley Cup. Tampa Bay was the class of the Eastern Conference, topping the Atlantic Division and claiming the number one conference seed for the playoffs with 113 points, one better than the Boston Bruins and trailing only two teams in the Western Conference, Winnipeg and 2017-18 Presidents’ Trophy winner Nashville. Losing to Washington in seven games in the Conference Final was rated as a disappointing end to a fine season by players, management, and most definitely fans on Florida’s gulf coast.

But to those less emotionally attached that campaign was a rousing success. With what were then the most regular season wins in franchise history, it should rank just behind Tampa Bay’s two trips to the Stanley Cup Finals, a 2004 championship and a 2015 loss to Chicago.

Yet 2017-18 was but a pale precursor to this season. After locking up star winger Nikita Kucherov with a long-term contract in the offseason, and also signing trade deadline acquisitions Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller, the Lightning began their season on October 6th with a 2-1 shootout victory over cross-state rival Florida Panthers. Tampa Bay lost the next game on the schedule, but the season would be a full five weeks old before the team suffered four defeats in regulation.

The NHL’s regular season stretches over parts of seven months, but November and February were the only pages on the calendar which saw the Lightning suffer back-to-back losses, and the two February defeats were both in overtime, so even in defeat Tampa Bay at least garnered one point in the standings. As if determined to atone for the November failing, the team went almost six weeks, from late that month through early January, with just a single overtime loss, garnering 31 of a possible 32 points in sixteen games. At season’s end Tampa Bay’s record stood at 62-16-4. That mark tied the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for the most wins in league history. The Lightning’s 128 points were the most since the NHL’s current system was put in place in 2006.

Led by 45 goals from Steven Stamkos, and a league-leading 87 assists from Kucherov, Tampa Bay netted 325 goals, almost half a score per game more than any other franchise. The defense in front of goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy was every bit as strong, allowing only 222 goals against, better than all but four teams. The Lightning’s plus-103 goal differential dwarfed the next best mark, Calgary’s plus-62. Numbers like those gave every fan within driving distance of downtown Tampa’s Amalie Arena reason to believe they’d be attending playoff hockey games into June.

But like the giant statue of an ancient Egyptian king crumbling in the desert, the Lightning’s season was reduced to dust, a modern collapse completed a mere ten days after that phenomenal regular season concluded.

The Lightning must have thought they had little to concern themselves with the Blue Jackets, having won all three regular season meetings against Columbus. That confidence seemed well placed when Tampa Bay raced out to a 3-0 lead in Game 1 before the first intermission. The lead was still 3-1 as the game approached the midpoint of the third period, when Columbus exploded for three goals in just over five minutes to seize the lead and ultimately the game. The journeyman major league pitcher Phil Hughes, a diehard Lightning fan, tweeted after the contest that the loss might be a good thing, since his team had dealt with so little adversity during the regular season.

That optimistic viewpoint started to fade when the Blue Jackets dominated Game 2, winning 5-1 and putting the heavily favored Lightning in a deep hole with the series moving to Ohio. In the comfort of Nationwide Arena last Saturday, Columbus took a two-goal lead through the second period of Game 3, then held on after Tampa Bay scored early in the third. A late empty net tally made the final margin 3-1. Two nights later the Blue Jackets delivered the mortal blow, though the Lightning finally at least put up a fight. After Columbus jumped out to an early 2-0 lead, Stamkos registered the first goal of the series by any of the Lightning’s stars. The one goal deficit became two, but again Tampa Bay battled back to tie, only to yield a power play goal late in the second period. The score remained at 4-3 through the third period, until a desperate coach Jon Cooper pulled Vasilevskiy for an extra attacker, only to see the Blue Jackets score three empty net goals in the game’s final two minutes, pushing the box score to a deceptively lopsided 7-3.

Hockey fans know that winning the regular season is no guarantee of capturing the Stanley Cup, as only eight Presidents’ Trophy winners have gone on to claim the title. The last to do so was Chicago in 2013. Almost as many – six winners before Tampa Bay – have been eliminated in the first round. But none of those teams were swept away in four straight games. That ugly distinction goes to the Lightning, a team that proved to be appropriately named come playoff time, with lots of flash but no staying power.

Tampa Bay’s faithful can tell themselves that much the same lineup that dominated this regular season will skate onto the ice when a new one begins next October. But that doesn’t change how the promise of 62 wins came undone so quickly, a season meant for glory turned into a colossal wreck the likes of which once inspired Shelley to take up his pen.

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Responses

  1. […] previously chronicled in this space, the pattern was established early in the opening round when the Eastern Conference’s number […]


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